THE 2014 SLEEPER TRIP - TWO DECADES AND COUNTING
When the SMRS sleeper trip first started back in 1995, no-one thought it might still be going strong twenty years later. But so it has proved, and just to show that it was not only alive but prospering, an ambitious itinerary was planned for 2014. Very much back to our old haunts in the Scottish highlands, combining some of the best places previously visited with one or two new ones. We also continued the policy of two years ago, when wives/girlfriends/significant others were encouraged to participate in the later stages.
The first stage to London was somewhat unusual by being via Bradford, for the simple reason that we could, and that it would make a change from the West Coast main line. Four of us departed by bus from Southport to Preston, where we diverted for the inevitable visit to the local Wetherspoons for second breakfast. A Grand Central train took us to Bradford, where we changed for the train to Kings Cross. A short walk to Euston produced the first (and fortunately only) hospitality failure - no food at the Doric Arch! However Jim’s encyclopaedic knowledge of real-ale watering holes was up to the task, and an effective substitute was soon located, the Bree Louise in nearby Cobourg St. There Malcolm joined us in time for an evening meal before we returned to the station to board the sleeper.
As all experienced sleeper customers know, one of the crucial waypoints on the journey is the moment of waking up and peering around the window blind to establish a) if we are in the right section of the train after it split at Edinburgh, b) where precisely we are, c) whether we are on time and d) what the weather is like. The answers on this occasion were a) yes, b) approaching Ardlui, c) no, by a good half-hour, and d) cloudy but dry. Two-and-a-half out of four, but the crucial issue was the lack of punctuality, as we had a steam train to catch. Twice before we have had this problem, both cured by Scotrail’s provision of taxis to go train-chasing. Fortunately our steward had been on the customer service course and volunteered to phone ahead if necessary to book a vehicle to take us from Fort William to the Jacobite’s one and only stop at Glenfinnan. As it turned out, it was necessary, he did phone ahead and we did get to Glenfinnan in good time to claim our seats on the steam train, pulled by one of a pair of Black Fives rostered for the summer excursions along the West Highland Line.
At Inverie pier we were met by the proprietor of our B&B, who took some of our party and all of our luggage by car, the rest of us yomping the mile or so along the one and only road, past the one and only bar and the one and only shop. As we learned later, Knoydart had been bought out a few years ago by the residents and has since prospered, with a significant increase in the number of those choosing to live in a remote part of Scotland accessible only by boat or by a rather long and rather arduous walk. There were quite a few cars in evidence, despite the lack of roads to drive them on, but being private land there was clearly no nonsense about road tax, MOTs or, in some cases at least, regular maintenance. The downside apparently was having to own your own bowser to store fuel delivered by boat, at a significant mark-up. Not to mention the need to buy (or mix your own) midge repellent in industrial quantities.
One would happily have stayed longer at such a peaceful and scenic location, but sleeper trips have their own discipline, and it was time to move on. Back to Mallaig on the ferry, this time with cloudier skies and slightly less smooth water, and then train to Oban. As is traditional, we confused our onboard train manager by alighting at Upper Tyndrum for the downhill walk to Lower Tyndrum, instead of the more sensible option of walking five yards across the platform at Crianlarich. On the way we stopped off for lunch at convenient roadside cafe. By the time we arrived in Oban the rain had set in, and it was a rather damp arrival at the next B&B. And there was no resting in a warm dry lounge, as a pair of significantly better other halves were due to arrive on the evening train from Glasgow. So it was back to the station to await their arrival, with entertainment provided by a local school pipe band, doing their bit for social cohesion in the square outside. Once all were reunited we again made use of an adjacent Wetherspoons before retiring for the night.
Nothing daunted we split into three groups to search out our accommodations for the next two nights, and then reunited at the Castlebay Bar for pre-dinner aperitifs. We were not surprised to find a dearth of cask ale, but there were a number of bottles with ‘Drink Me’ writ large on the label, in a number of different scripts. What was surprising was the identity of the Keeper of the Darts, a trained-to-the-edge-of-canine-reason collie, who insisted we all took a turn at her dartboard, with no taking no for an answer. Indeed there were several of us who were convinced of her ability not only to marshall a continuous stream of arrow-wielders, but also to tap out their score with a graceful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flick of the left paw. But perhaps it was just the effect of the beer. Some gentle interrogation of local residents confirmed our suspicions that the curry-and-seafood (separate plates) restaurant on the quayside was the best place to eat, and so it proved. The scenery gradually relented and formed a fine backdrop to the gastronomic experience, such that we came back the next night and did it all again.
Our last day dawned, and we returned by train to Glasgow, where Malcolm left us to follow his own altered route home, following exhaustive and exhausting negotiations with the customer services person at Largs station, who clearly knew just whose service they were working for. For the rest of us it was a busy but speedy train to Preston, just in time to miss the Southport bus. However there’s always another one behind, for he who cares to wait half an hour.
Truth to tell, Ireland was originally part of a larger Grand Plan, that tried to take in not only Eire but also Man. However it foundered on the practicalities of ferry timetables and opening times, and it would probably have taken too long and cost too much anyway. As it happened some of us got to the Isle of Man later in the year, courtesy of the Narrow Gauge Gathering, but that’s another story.
Since the last expedition in 2009 the ferry options had shrunk alarmingly, but fortunately the Liverpool-Dublin route was still operating and still accepting residents of both North Merseyside and West Lancashire. Whether they would also take two members from the Deep South was questionable, but we decided to try smuggling them past the officials rather than go to the expense of returning their deposits. One who would undoubtably have charmed her way past any border guards, armed or not, was Hilary, but unfortunately her stamina at the time was not sufficiently robust for arduous foreign travel. We wondered whether to suggest she lent us husband John’s well-travelled credit card for the duration, but we bottled out, which was probably just as well.
To travel hopefully is better than to arrive in an MX5 with the hood down, in the rain
- RL Stevenson, as amended
Next morning after a relatively smooth passage we reversed the embarkation procedure and set off through a damp and still half-asleep Dublin towards our first railway destination, via a handy McDonalds for second breakfast. The timing of our arrival meant we had an hour or three to spare, which we intended to spend down a mine. The Arigna Mining Experience, to give it its full title, was certainly that, an experience of what it was really like digging coal out of the ground in a low-budget mineral extraction facility. Labour-saving devices were few, mostly it involved lying sideways in a puddle hacking at a narrow floor-level seam, with only a candle for lighting. Our guide had done just that for many years, so respect was both deserved and readily given.
It’s more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words
but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?’
- Winnie the Pooh
The final railway event of the day was at Lough Ree power station, also the location of a previous visit, where we called in to see journey’s end for the peat bog trains. The trucks are rotated 180 degrees to empty their loads into conveyors which deliver the peat to the furnaces. I forget the statistics of how many tonnes per day, the water content limits or how much electricity, but it was as impressive as the staff were friendly. In the UK we would probably not get past the security gate; this being Ireland we drove right in to the plant and walked on up the stairs to the control room, with no-one being in the least concerned. Overnight was at a B&B in Athlone.
The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out
eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Infused with both coffee and culture we drove on to the West Clare Railway. This was a similar-sized enterprise to the Cavan and Leitrim but otherwise could hardly have been different. Notwithstanding the flashy red fire engine parked at the entrance, the railway was clearly focussed on its main objective of preserving part of what was once an extensive railway network.
The resplendently-bearded owner was a local quarry operator and had clearly used his expertise, and machinery, to relay the trackbed and much else besides. The facilities included a museum, a buffet car and an 00 gauge model railway, not to mention one of the original locomotives, the 0-6-0T Slieve Callan.
After a thorough exploration, including of a collection of stored carriages across the road, and a ride on the train, we departed for a B&B at Kilrush.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the other end of the original line, at Ballybunion, famous for its surfing beaches, golf course and statue of Bill Clinton. We confined ourselves to admiring just the first of these, before heading off to the night’s accommodation at Tralee.
As the weather turned increasingly damp we headed west to the Dingle peninsula, via a small but characterful pub, complete with a small but strangely friendly dog. We chose the pretty route via the Conor Pass, and were rewarded with magnificent views of rain-soaked cloud, through which we briefly glimpsed the falls for which the pass is famous. As we arrived in Dingle town the rain eased off and we gained some inkling as to why it was a favourite of visitors. After checking in at the smart B&B on the sea front, the town’s main street was carefully inspected, noting with approval more than one small shop that had a bar as a secondary source of income. Or primary, quite possibly.
I feel very adventurous. There are so many doors to be opened,
and I’m not afraid to look behind them
- Elizabeth Taylor
Travel is ninety percent anticipation and ten percent recollection
- Edward Streeter
'As we travelled alongside the Suir there was a marked contrast in historical design. On one bank the 20th century contemporary style of the Waterford Institute of Technology and Science Centre, while by the opposite embankment local fishermen were casting nets from their traditional 'cots'. Harking back to the Middle Ages, these are boats of shallow draft constructed of timber and coated in pitch, and are ideal for fishing in shallow waters.'
The motive power for the journey was a small Simplex diesel, although on walking up to the engine shed afterwards we came upon what looked like a brand new Hunslet, in a rather fearsome purple livery. A grounded Mark II coach functioned as a ticket office and shop, and refreshments were partaken of before departing.
It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters, in the end
- Ernest Hemingway
2012 - THE AULD ALLIANCE REBORNA new management team and a new look to this year's sleeper trip. For the first time two countries were visited, a new sleeper route traversed and, a bold move this, spouses were permitted, nay positively encouraged, to join in. It all started when Richard promoted the delights of the Garden of England as a venue for the discerning railway tourist. There were indeed a number of preserved lines in Kent worthy of a visit, and it was not too difficult a mental leap to propose a trip northwards to Scotland before venturing south-east, so as to incorporate the essential sleeper element. Jim then expressed a desire to visit not one, not two but all three routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and your webmaster modestly suggested that a trip to the county of his upbringing could be well rounded off with a trip under the Channel to foreign lands.
And so we had our concept, and a small, energetic committee rapidly turned it into a fully-fledged Plan. The masterstroke was to include for the first time the option of inviting partners to join us in Paris, only partly to avoid the accusation of enjoying ourselves in foreign activities which we might not wish to share with said partners. In reality of course, their presence would rejuvenate a tired, travel-weary party and ensure the maximum benefit from the latter stages of the trip. And so indeed it turned out.The six-strong party made their departure following the usual mid-morning route to Wigan and its Station Cafe and thence northwards to Preston. We then entrained for Edinburgh, which was reached on time but in the sort of weather that seems to be the hallmark of this somewhat damp summer. I blame the water companies for declaring a drought in the Spring - a temptation of fate which brought forth the inevitable response from the climate gnomes. Surprisingly, the Waverley station alterations noted during last year's trip were still in full swing, to the confusion of a fair slice of the travelling public. Fortunately Jim's built-in RPS (Real-ale Positioning System) took us unerringly to the nearby Halfway House for second lunch and a planning session for the afternoon. This involved seeing how many different ways we could get by train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, or vice-versa, until the supply of will-power, time or tickets ran out. We managed three trips before deciding our cup of pleasure was full, and somewhere along the line we surfaced briefly amongst all the scaffolding to survey the pig's ear that is the current state of Edinburgh's new tram system. One day it may all be sorted out and may even be magnificent, but for the time being I pity the poor city rate-payer.
The Glasgow to Euston sleeper was a first for us, but after internal fortification at a convenient Wetherspoons we boarded successfully and were untroubled by border guards, passport controls or visa examinations as we crossed the border southwards. Whether such freedom of movement will remain come the independence vote is another matter, but at least the current economic crisis means that adoption of the euro north of the border seems increasingly unlikely. At Euston we breakfasted at a convenient, if somewhat incongruous, Ed's Easy Diner and progressed the short distance eastwards to that marvel of Victorian architecture, St Pancras station. After a good stare at all the lovely stone and glass we embarked on a Quite Fast Train for Gillingham. Unfortunately it only went quite fast for quite a short distance, but speed is not of the essence on these trips so there were no complaints. Following best practice from previous trips we secured our home base at the King Charles hotel via taxi, before venturing the short distance downhill to Chatham Dockyard.Now a dockyard might not seem an obvious port of call for railway enthusiasts, but SMRS celebrates diversity, and in any case the displays included the remnants of a once-extensive rail system, not to mention a small but fully-functioning micro-brewery, complete with sales outlet. Admission was courtesy of Hilary's husband's credit card, carefully husbanded by Hilary for that very purpose, and good value it was too. The exhibits included a relatively modern frigate and submarine as well as sailing ships and a large collection of RNLI lifeboats. One highlight, apart from the brewpub, was the Ropery, where a remarkably well-preserved foreman from 1750 or thereabouts gave an informative and entertaining tour of the rope making house. This included audience participation in a re-enactment of the process, in which we modestly took the leading roles.
By late afternoon, with the rain starting to fall, we had had our fill of things naval, and returned by taxi up the hill to the hotel and a local restaurant.
Next day we took the train again to Canterbury, where a short-ish walk across the city centre took us to our hotel, the characterful Millers Arms, complete with mill stream and weir. After a rapid baggage-drop we went into tourist mode and headed for the cathedral. Not a cheap option, but it dominates the city both physically and spiritually, and has to be seen. The gift shop, as all others of its type, sported not only a wide range of cathedral-themed knick-knacks but also some of a unusual railwayana, in particular canvas bags with assorted modelling motifs. At least two were admitted to be purchased.
After a mainly liquid lunch we turned our attention north, travelling by bus to Whitstable along the approximate line of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, closed sixty years ago. There we paraded along the sea-front, admired the eclectic collection of chalets, curio shops and seafood stalls, and partook of the local cuisine, some with more gusto than others. Back to Canterbury on the bus, followed by evening meal at the hotel.
Overnight, after a chance discovery of a Hornby Visitor Centre leaflet we plotted another diversion to the Mother Ship, as it was rapidly christened, in Margate. In the clear light of Sunday morning it became clear that the train route was not an option, but our enthusiasm was undimmed and a local taxi driver was commissioned to take us forth. The Centre turned out to be well worth the visit, with a wide range of historical models of all types, a genuine nostalgia-fest for us modellers.
By lunchtime we were back in Canterbury for the train to Shepherdswell and the East Kent Railway. This is a small railway on a limited budget, running diesel and electric multiple units on part of the line used for the now-defunct Kent coalfields. Added attractions included a pleasant cafe, a miniature railway and a model railway. This last is run by Walmer Model Railway Club, who occupy a restored Stanier LMS carriage in return for keeping the layout running during opening hours. After an enjoyable afternoon playing trains of various scales we entrained again for Folkestone for a two-night stay.Wednesday morning saw us on a bus going a short way down the coast to Hythe for the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, one of the key objectives of the trip. This is an 18" gauge railway built by a member of that well-known endangered species, the eccentric millionaire, initially for his own pleasure but now doing a useful service for residents as well as visitors. The route runs for thirteen miles past many a back garden and some rustic Kent scenery, ending up at Dymchurch amidst an ocean of shingle beach. This outpost on the teetering edge of civilisation boasts a pair of nuclear power stations, a pair of lighthouses and an air of slightly decayed weirdness. The houses resemble holiday homes, but some at least seem to be occupied permanently. By whom we dared not ask.
On our return to Folkestone we attempted to locate the Leas Cliff Railway, a water-driven funicular of some antiquity. Unfortunately we were in possession of faulty location data, and took a bus to the wrong type of cliff on the edge of town. By the time we had recalibrated the various mobile electronics of choice and found the item only a few minutes' walk from where we were staying, it had closed for the night. For once our reputation for creative diversionary routing had come unstuck - it just shows you can't have enough detailed (and accurate) pre-planning.
Next day we entrained for Ashford and then found a bus to Tenterden, home of the Kent and East Sussex Railway. This took us, by DMU, to Bodiam and its famous castle. Assuming you have heard of it, of course. An interesting sideline at the station was a small museum dedicated to the hop-pickers who used to descend on the hop-farms of the area in days gone by. After a quick look at the famous castle's famous ruins we somehow gravitated to the nearby pub, to test the quality of the hops in their beer. Some of us were satisfied at the first pass, whilst others declared themselves unsure of the quality and needful of more testing, even if it meant returning on a later train. Such dedication.
The early leavers did the decent thing and met up with the two wives who had travelled from home base that day to check up on us and hold us in check on the Parisian jaunt. But that's another story.
2011 - A SECONDARY SLEEPER
All change this year, and I don't mean just at the numerous railway terminii visited during the course of the trip. The previous Proposer of the itinerary and Organiser of the accommodation (the posts being held jointly and concurrently for reasons of economy) had decided to retire at the peak of his powers and before he could be found out. And so a new P&O sleeper trip executive was voted in, and almost before he knew it, was being given numerous requests and requirements on what the 2011 excursion should consist of.
It was of course a test - there was only one way the apparently conflicting proposals could be fitted into seven days and one night of travel, no matter how many sequences were attempted, rather like Mr Rubik's famous cube. Much to our surprise (and in at least one alleged case, disappointment) Frank deduced the solution in only 193 tries, a Southport MRS all comers' record. And so the franchise for running the next ten years' worth of sleeper trips was promptly awarded to the winning (and sole) bidder. The bottle of Glenfiddich 15-year old which somehow found its way into the new man's hands came cheap at the price.
The euphoria of a successful planning exercise was short-lived. All too quickly the acid test of its provenance came on a Monday morning in late June as five of us assembled at Southport station, Richard deciding that true Ormskirkians do not enter Southport more than absolutely necessary and opting to join the train at the neutral venue of Burscough. At Wigan there was some doubt as to whether the schedule would permit second breakfast at the Station Cafe, but fortunately the strength of tradition was not to be denied, although for some members a take-away was considered the wiser option rather than the full sit-down three-course menu. A departure from said tradition was a change of train at Crewe, thoughtfully arranged by the Rail Travel Planning Executive (not to be confused with the P&O Executive, see above) to allow a stretch of the legs and a mooch around one of our more historic railway stations.
Regular readers will recall that last year's trip included a clockwise tour around the eastern section of London's Overground Railway. For symmetry therefore, it was necessary this time to proceed in an anticlockwise direction to cover as much as possible of the western half of Boris's Train Set. Such was the success of this manoeuvre that the number of lines travelled on, not to mention stations briefly visited, rapidly became too numerous to count. Richmond was an objective achieved early, and Clapham Junction very shortly afterwards, such that before the internal compass could be properly reset we found ourselves heading east again to the Docklands Light Railway and the Olympic stadium. Learning from past experience we decided to delay stopping for an evening meal until only a couple of stops away from Euston, to facilitate a timely arrival for boarding the sleeper.
As it happened we had time enough to partake of Virgin's First Class lounge, where apparently our standard class sleeper tickets carried sufficient authority to allow admission. The departure was uneventful, with the barest minimum of discussion on who was sharing a cabin with whom, and who was going to be whose nominal carer. The buffet car was found to be serving not only haggis but also beer of acceptable quality, although regrettably the concept of alcohol served from the cask, rather than from the can, is still beyond the scope of such dispensaries.
After an all-too-brief period exploring our novel surroundings, hunger drove us up to the village shop to gather the components of a self-catered lunch in our very own saloon compartment. Shortly afterwards we returned to the shop to catch the local bus a few miles up the road to Dunrobin castle, an enormous stone edifice set in, or rather looming above, large formal gardens. A pleasant couple of hours was spent being impressed by the scale and grandeur of the building and its setting before we returned by train to Rogart from the castle's very own station, constructed in what appeared to be 19th century African style.
Back at Keith we entrained once more for Aberdeen, and on arrival wandered up Union St. to partake of Jimmy Chung's all-you-can-eat buffet before retiring to the B&B for the night. Extremely regular readers will recall us patronising a similar establishment in Edinburgh during the 2003 sleeper trip. This one was a little larger and a lot quieter, so we felt obliged to make full use of the buffet to minimise wastage. Next day (Sunday if you're counting) saw us proceeding south by train again to Montrose, into uncharted territory for SMRS. The attraction was the Caledonian Railway, a preserved standard-gauge line between Bridge of Dun and Brechin. The eastern extremity of the line was reached by taxi, and we spent a pleasant half-hour or so exploring the range of preserved rolling stock before the train arrived from Brechin, pulled by a Thomas the Tank Engine lookalike. As a party piece before departing, the loco was manoeuvred to run over a series of pennies placed on the track, to create a flattened novelty for sale to boost the coffers of the railway.
Again we were split up in to two B&Bs, for commercial and security reasons, and one pair had some difficulty in gaining entrance, due to the landlady being absent at a barbecue designed as a cool-down after her hen-party the night before. Out of propriety we did not enquire further, but sought out our colleagues at a nearby restaurant, a Wetherspoon look-alike. Here the Good Beer Guide let us down, with hand pumps on display but connected to empty casks. The bigger sin, accordingly to the experts in the group, was not running out (could happen to any pub) but failing to turn round the pump labels to indicate the fact to potential customers peering round the door, only willing to enter if the beer was (a) real and (b) really present. For the true believers in our midst direct action was called for, by declining alcoholic drinks of any form, and somewhat pointedly requesting tap water. Whether the staff were suitably humbled was not clear, perhaps a memo to management might have been more effective.
Yet another successful trip (there has been, so far at least, no other type).
Some photos are here and the real, uncensored truth is here.
Despite trying to limit the choices (no point in confusing the electorate with too many) in the end there were more options than could be easily reviewed all at once, even at a specially-convened subcommittee. This was attended by five interested parties, with the chairman absent in person but adding his not-inconsiderable persuasive authority courtesy of a mobile phone conference call.
Despite significant interest in the eastern option, to Aberdeen and the Keith and Dufftown, the call of the Isles was not to be denied. The sleeper trip programme development manager (create your own acronym) was given clear instruction to progress a North Uist/Barra itinerary. The relative merits of buses and boats were discussed at length, taking due account of the likelihood of stormy weather in the Little Minch, even in mid-June.
The eventually-preferred route involved some of each, going overland across Skye to take the ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy. The return would be by plane, taking in the world's only scheduled flight using a beach as a runway, at Barra. A neat complement to our experience of the shortest scheduled flight in Orkney in 2008, assuming that global warming didn't cause too much of a rise in sea levels between planning and execution.
After the trauma of route selection, I was hoping booking would be straightforward. However the fairly small amount of B&B accommodation on the Outer Islands, and the need to accommodate six men in six beds, made it less than simple. Visions of us being scattered far and wide across each island, or alternatively of being forced to stay in luxury hotels significantly above our normal means, looked to becoming a definite reality. And the price of the air tickets, once fees and taxes were added, suddenly looked less of a bargain that they did earlier.
However, such problems were just there to be solved, and we seemed to be just about there. Some splitting up of the party was necessary, but at least it looked as if we would be able to reconvene for evening sustenance and entertainment at each location, and just about afford it too.
And then there were five. Shock, horror the chairman failed the initiative test and bottled out of team selection. Some pretext about a sudden training course for some government-inspired savings scheme. A likely story, but being loyal servants we swallowed it without audible question, cancelled a selection of pre-bookings and reformulated the finances. Fortunately the deputy chairman was still on board, so a strong element of leadership remained to guide us through.
Euston arrived on time, allowing us the luxury of several hours in the metropolis. Not of course to be frittered away in frivolous shopping or pointless sightseeing. The Mayor of London's Trainset beckoned, better known to some as the London Overground. In theory a more-or-less complete circumnavigation of middle London suburbia was possible, although this might require more dedication than we were capable of summoning up in advance of a sleeper journey. The left-luggage office was briefly visited, but just as briefly dismissed due to the £8 per item charge. It would stay with us, and we would learn the value of travelling light. First stop was Highbury and Islington via the Victoria line, then the LO itself to Dalston Kingsland (where?). Dalston Junction was but a short step away, albeit slightly damp and surrounded by a combination of construction activity and variable-ethnic market commercialism that some might describe as eclectic. More Overground, this time due south through somewhat miscellaneous city scenery to Crystal Palace.
Here amongst impressive but not particularly user-friendly brickwork, a decision needed to be made on the next stage. Several routes westward were possible, but only one, or at the most two, had the magic word 'tram' in their itinerary. A quick check on the validity of our travelcards and we were off to Beckenham, the north-eastern extremity of Tram Link. From there we traversed the length of the line, carefully avoiding Croydon of course, and eventually arrived at Wimbledon. Fighting our way through a mix of urban commuters and early-evening pleasure-seekers, we found a likely-looking Italian restaurant and declared dinner to be served.
The final stage was another novelty, a First Capital Connect train aiming for Luton but going the pretty route through central London, across the Thames at Blackfriars to St Pancras International. A brisk walk westward along Euston Rd took us to our bed for the night.
Next morning we assembled for the third ferry of the day to Skye, the first two being discounted because a) the bus didn't meet either of them at Armadale and b) it would involve getting up earlier than strictly necessary. An uneventful crossing was noted only for presence of a bright red Morgan in pole position on the car deck, adding a touch of class to an otherwise rather ordinary collection of vehicles. The bus took us to Portree, where the afternoon was free for freelance adventures in the steadily-improving weather. By general agreement this would take the form of a boat trip to view the local aquatic wildlife. At first the cost quoted was a little daunting, but the salesperson recognised the significant age of most of the party and also that five in a boat were worth more than any number on the dockside. So a bargain was struck, and an al-fresco lunch consumed on the quay whilst we waited our turn afloat.
Back on dry land there was time to watch the world go by in the town square before the bus came to take us to Uig, driven by a lady with a strong sense of mission. The ferry to Lochmaddy was reached by a breakwater just long enough for us to be grateful for the minivan offered as courtesy transport. The weather started to mist over a little, giving added drama to both landscape and seascape, but fortunately not having any significant effect on wave heights. No Morgans this time, although one car did have a red canoe perched on top. Once cast adrift we went in search of the wardroom promised as far away as the ferry office in Mallaig, and as long ago as yesterday, and found it open and serving hot dinners.
A pleasant two-hour cruise later North Uist grew on the bow horizon and we were manouvered alongside the modest jetty by a captain clearly well familiar with putting either left or right hand down a bit, as the situation demanded.
Next morning after breakfast, cooked or raw depending on location, we set off to explore the environs of Lochmaddy, guided by local information that a pleasant walk could be obtained beyond the Tigh Dearg in a circular fashion. The degree of dampness underfoot, and occasionally in the air, encouraged a shorter version that still succeeded in testing the waterproof qualities of our footwear to the limit, and in some cases beyond it. Highlights of the tour included a circular stone igloo, far too new in appearance to be an ancient dwelling-house, that later research was determined to be a camera obscura. So obscure in fact that we never twigged it at the time. Also on the itinerary was a wooden suspension bridge and Sponish House, a somewhat run-down mansion built 200 years ago for the local sheriff. We circled back to the hotel for a welcome coffee, and wandered back down to the harbour, via the local museum and shop, to wait for the bus to the airport. This was on Benbecula, not to be confused with either North Uist or South Uist, between which it lay. First to arrive was the local post bus, whose driver offered to take us but with the honest appraisal that the journey would be both shorter and more comfortable in the proper bus, which was but five minutes behind. We decided to wait, and had the shorter and comfier trip across the island and the barely-discernible bridge (or was it a causeway?) to the airport.
We disembarked just in time to miss the bus to Castlebay, but were assured there was another a few minutes behind. True to form it appeared, piloted by a driver whose customer service battle honours were clearly born of natural island breeding rather than of an anonymous training course delivered in the back room of some soul-less Glaswegian urban hotel. Not only did we manage to underpay the fare, but we were cheerfully delivered right to the door of our chosen B&Bs, both involving a diversion off the bus route and one a three-point turn on a narrow road.
Castlebay turned out to be an attractive well-appointed small town on a scenic island. After a quick spruce-up we set out looking for sustenance. The local Indian eating-house was closed, which was a pity because it claimed to combine both sub-continental and Italian cuisine, a combination well worth exploring, although perhaps not on the same plate. Instead we went up-market in the Castlebay hotel, which claimed to be the best dining experience in town. Almost certainly the most expensive, but on balance judged to be good value. As the evening drew to a close, and the light even began to dim a little, a shadowy shape approached the jetty. This was the ferry from Oban, at the end of its seven-hour journey.
Next morning was unscripted, allowing us to choose how to explore the attractions of Castlebay. We elected to visit Kisimul castle, the home of the chief of the MacNeil clan. This had a moat of some considerable proportions, namely the whole of the bay, the bay of the castle in fact. Whilst waiting for the boat to take us across, various buildings were pointed that had starring roles, or at least significant bit parts, in the making of Whisky Galore in 1949. The castle itself was interesting rather than excessively fascinating, with a number of medieval features that held the attention long enough to elect to stay longer than the first available return journey. Distinctly un-medieval was the helicopter that took off from the edge of the town while we were there, its yellow livery indicating its function as a flying ambulance.
Back on the beach we soaked up the sun, finished off lunch and waited for splashdown of the Glasgow plane. Its landing was well worth the wait, as was the scenery revealed as we flew south-east over such exotic isles as Coll, Tiree and Mull, and quite possibly Muck and Eigg as well. A combination of clear weather and limited altitude meant that the landscape did actually resemble Google Earth's representation, albeit without the zoom facility. A bus to Paisley station was ready and waiting outside the airport, and we entrained for our final destination, Largs. The final B&B was within a stone's throw of the station, although we managed to reach it via a somewhat larger slingshot. The proprietorix was welcoming and Rumanian, and encouraged us to make full use of the facilities, including our second resident's lounge of the trip. However we had more important matters to attend to, namely to find a suitable venue for eating, drinking and watching England's stumbling performance through world cup qualifying. The first two requirements were easily met, the third was somewhat frustrating.
The final day saw us back at the station aiming for a seven-minute connection at Glasgow Central for the train to Preston. We made it without undue alarm, and once the seat bookings were sorted out we had an uneventful trip back home, the final leg courtesy of the Stagecoach X2 omnibus.
Planning has already started for next year, the new man promising a fresh, vigorous approach to executive sleeper trip management. In reality, more of the same will do nicely.
Some photos are here.
The loading procedure was reminiscent of a circus ride. It started on a fairly innocuous-looking landing stage, with a hard left to avoid the fatal error of boarding the Dublin ferry, followed by a sweeping curve onto the loading ramp, and we thought we were there. However a uniformed official had other ideas, and pointed us firmly in the direction of a second ramp, equipped with ominous-looking, and ominous-sounding anti-slip markings. The reason for such provision immediately became clear, as we were launched up a steep slope that threatened to test the driver-vehicle combination to the limit. Just as it seemed we were inevitably to be catapulted onto a maritime version of the wall of death, we emerged onto the top deck of the ferry and some welcome flat parking areas. At the far end we espied a well-preserved Mini, looking far younger than its 29 years, if the number plate was to be believed.
The cabins were functional but more than adequate, as was the midships bar, the aft bar, the min-casino and the restaurant. This last served dinner that was not only filling but also included in the price of the ticket, so we were compelled to put the Indian meal firmly behind us and ensure full value was secured from our investment. Mid-way through dinner a steward appeared and pulled the curtains across the front windows firmly closed, although it was by no means dark outside. One hoped no such procedure was being carried out upstairs on the bridge.
The morning alarm call, courtesy of several mobile phones, was sounded earlier that we would have liked, but the promise of a free breakfast was stronger than we could resist. As we ate Belfast Lough slipped by either side and we were soon docking at our destination, surrounded by container cranes, container stacks and container lorries. As we tied up a Stena high-speed catamaran ferry pulled in a little astern of us, probably without any containers. Leaving the ship required a firm hand on the steering wheel and a strong will to avoid breaking any speed limits for the descent into the bowels of the ship where lay the exit ramp. Once safely at ground level we headed north in convoy, initially in the direction of Londonderry but then south-west towards Donegal, in weather that seemed determined to emulate, if not improve on, the previous day's. At Strabane we stopped for a coffee, the effect of an early start being that the town still seemed rather more than half asleep. Fortunately we found one cafe wide awake and functioning. En route we passed a baker's shop that seemed to take to heart the Irish reputation for dairy products of quality and quantity, with a good dozen square feet of counter space given over to essential supplies of cream cakes.
The museum was an interesting affair, cataloging the rise and fall of the local narrow-gauge systems with photographs, posters, models and audio-visual displays, supplemented by some static coaches outside. The lady in charge explained the lack of signs to the museum by saying that it was easy to find if you knew where it was, or words to that effect.
Lunchtime was approaching, but we decided to press on the twenty miles or so to Fintown, in weather that was turning increasingly warm. After a journey through country roads in scenery that looked decidedly Scottish, we reached a lake and soon afterwards spotted a railcar progressing eastwards alongside it. A swift overtaking manoeuvre and we pulled into the somewhat basic station facilities to await its arrival. It turned out to be a pair of vehicles, with a small diesel locomotive providing banking assistance (on almost completely level track) to the railcar. After confirming the afternoon timetable we repaired to the local pub for lunch, only to find it served no food. Faced with a five-mile run back to Glenties for an alternative venue, we opted instead to gather a selection of supplies at the village shop, for consumption at a picnic table overlooking some particularly picturesque scenery. The train returned, departed and returned again, and this time we strolled back to the station and took our seats for a leisurely ride along the lakeside. At the far end we were a captive audience to a taped message describing the history of the line, its closure and its reopening, and we were driven sedately back again. In an adjacent yard were several other railcars and another diesel locomotive, all in considerable need of repair.
We drove onwards to a B&B on the outskirts of Letterkenny, a busy small town that sported a considerable number of new commercial and residential developments, no doubt part of the Celtic Tiger effect, before it caught cat 'flu. It also featured a one-way system, which the lead vehicle managed to negotiate no less than five times whilst a) re-establishing contact with the separated support vehicle, b) locating a shop selling camera cards and c) finding a suitable place to eat. This last was the first of two Chinese restaurants we were to patronise during the trip. As a pre-dinner exercise we explored the eastern perimeter of the town for signs of previous railways. The stone-and-cast-iron bus station looked a good candidate for a restored railway terminus, circa 1908, further evidence being in the form of a hand-operated pedestal crane in the car park outside.
After a thorough examination of the edifice, and our contribution to its eventual disappearance, we returned to Bushmills by bus and train. This time the train was pulled by a diesel locomotive, complete with a set of roof-mounted horns that could probably be heard in Stranraer. The steam loco had been declared temporarily unfit for employment with injector problems. Possibly some form of psychosomatic neurosis brought on by being called Shane – one wondered if it had a twin called Sharon, or perhaps Tracy? We set off for our overnight accommodation in Ballymena, in one of a matching pair of large guest houses.
Next day we drove on almost deserted roads to the small town of Whitehead, the home of the workshops of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. A track off a road alongside a children's park opened up into a large yard full of assorted locomotives, rolling stock and associated machinery. We introduced ourselves to one of the volunteer workers, hoping the the deputy chairman's careful preparation for our visit had paid off. Fortunately they were friendly enough to overcome this obstacle, and we were treated to a thorough tour of the works and much detail on the Society's operations. The range of this works was impressive, and even included a small foundry for casting assorted items of railway infrastructure.
Our second stop of the day was at Downpatrick, for the Downpatrick railway. Unfortunately they had suffered a break-in the night before, and were unable to run trains, the local scenes of crime officer being fully engaged on the platform and station building with magnifying glass and fingerprint powder. We were however given our second detailed and informative tour of the day, by an apologetic and friendly staff. After a late lunch at a local pub we drove to Castleblayney for our overnight accommodation.
Next day the Cavan and Leitrim Railway was a considerable surprise. We were expecting perhaps a repeat of the Downpatrick railway, although hopefully without the criminal element. What we found was a treasure trove of old transport, of virtually every conceivable type. As well as a restored steam locomotive and numerous industrial diesels there were buses, coaches, ambulances, parts of planes, a German WWII glider and even a midget submarine, painted the inevitable yellow. It was run by another national treasure, known in the railway fraternity as 'Mad Mike', possibly for his slightly eccentric appearance, for his 'can-do attitude to preservation issues or for an eclectic and all-inclusive approach to selecting items for his personal attention. Or possibly all three.
After a session buying T-shirts and finding other excuses to press modest amounts of money into our host's hands, we took a reluctant farewell. Pausing only to watch the local service train stop at the adjacent station, we departed south for the final railway of the trip, and the most problematical. We knew there were narrow-gauge railways in the area, supplying power stations with freshly-dug peat, but we had also been reliably informed that the associated tourist-carrying track was closed. Apparently it was being upgraded to a full-blown Tourist Attraction, possibly even a Heritage Centre. But not for a couple of years.
However local intelligence, from Mad Mike himself no less, indicated that a working peat operation was located nearby, and furthermore that a working power station was not far distant, and it might even suffer visitors to view its activities. We set off in optimistic mood, and quite soon came upon a somewhat nondescript collection of sheds, vehicles and tracks that looked vaguely peat-related. Our veteran ambassador was sent to negotiate with the handful of workers who looked as if they had had enough for the day. Whether they had strange visitors from abroad every other week was not clear, but they seemed quite happy for us to wander around and record what they were doing, or to be precise had just stopped doing. The operational nature of the site was quickly confirmed by a small diesel locomotive which drove energetically past towing a wagon, the driver clearly needing to be somewhere else by the end of his shift. Peat-scraping machines and a briquette-making equipment were seen, along with a large pile of assorted track panels and serried ranks of sleeper packs.
A few miles further on a tall chimney emitting a plume of white smoke indicated a power station. This time the chairman took charge, and introduced himself to the shift manager. The latter was also unsurprised at the request to look round his domain, and spend some time explaining in detail just what went on there. We were granted favoured-visitor status, and allowed to wander around outside taking photographs of the train movements. Peat-loading had finished for the day, but several locomotives were seen coming and going with long trains of wagons, with the occasional light-engine positioning moves, ready for the morning.
Back on dry land it was still wet, so we retrieved our vehicles promptly and set off in the direction of Dublin, for our final B&B and the ferry home. Negotiating the route to the docks was a little trickier than on the outward journey, but we made it, and had the pleasure of a millpond to sail on back to Birkenhead.
Some photos are here.
- 2008Trains and boats and planes
I dimly recall, back in 1997, sitting on the harbour wall in Thurso debating the merits of including a visit to Orkney on the next sleeper trip. For ‘next’ read eleven years later, and here we are. No sense in rushing these decisions.
The idea was promulgated by the chairman, which immediately added a degree of authority to the discussion on where we should go in 2008. The prime aim apparently was to experience the world’s shortest scheduled flight, from Westray to Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands. The value of going several hundred miles to sit in a small plane for a few bumpy minutes was not immediately apparent, but like good loyal members we smiled and nodded and let the idea sit for a while to see how it looked. In the meantime a few tentative prods were made on McGoogle to see how the logistics might pan out. It looked complicated but do-able, which is the sort of verdict we have been used to in recent years. Two nights on Orkney seemed the optimum, to minimise the chance of itinerary failure, and also the amount of luggage needed to be either carried on the plane or deposited at the airport.
A deal was struck - we would fall in with the idea on the understanding that the chairman would allow us to vote for him in the forthcoming elections at the AGM. Well it seemed a good idea at the time.
The many and varied episodes between conception and execution are documented here, and you will be grateful to learn that I will not repeat them. Sufficient to say it was probably the most testing pre-trip period I can recall, not made any easier by being deputed as ticket monitor. This was due to the deputy chairman’s determination to play with his steam locomotive in the deep south at virtually the same time as embarking on an expedition to the far north. It broke down (twice) so justice was done in the end.
London appeared only a few minutes late and most of us elected for a visit to the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. The general verdict was interesting, but not as big as we thought. One wandered off (just getting into practice for later in the trip) to investigate the tram service to Croydon, for no other reason than it was there and he could. The Duke’s minder appeared in time for the evening meal in a Covent Garden pub and the full party then set off for Euston.
At the appointed hour the bus turned up at the station and took us off on the short journey to Scrabster harbour. One of our number (the tram wanderer) had been tempted to walk the route along the sea-front, but had backed out at the last minute due to a suspicion that the ferry may depart from somewhat further round the coast. As it happened it didn’t and we were soon deposited at the loading-ramp of a smart, modern ship that looked very capable of dealing with whatever weather the Pentland Firth might contrive to throw at it. For reasons which were not clear, either to us or to the ferry company, a surcharge of £1.45 was payable. As this worked out at a bare 20p per person argument seemed a little pointless, but a mystery it remained. It was certainly not a congestion charge, as there were hardly a couple of dozen foot passengers for the whole ship. Reference numbers were duly recalled, and photo-identities produced, and we were allowed to board. The bar was comfortable, and open, and so became the natural resting place for weary travellers.
We arrived at Stromness as dusk was falling, but being so far north it took most of the evening to get anywhere near dark. Just as well, as the B&B was sufficiently well hidden off the main street to make it difficult to discover even in the full light of day. However we eventually got there, and were allocated comfortable berths in the adjacent building.
Breakfast was a meal to be savoured, with enough quality content to keep us going for ages, even perhaps as far as elevenses. The weather was not promising, windy and wet, not really the sort of conditions for aerobatics, wing-walking or indeed any sort of flying in anything smaller than a 737. However we were fully committed, not to mention fully paid up in advance, so we queued for the bus in an orderly fashion and duly arrived in an equally damp Kirkwall. Only a brief tour of the town was feasible before catching the bus to the airport, which was surprisingly modern and even a touch busy. We presented ourselves at the Loganair desk and were pleased to note that we were not only expected but both plane and pilot were at that moment preparing for our aerial adventure. The former turned out to from the very deep south (London) one of a surprising number of ex-pats we encountered on Orkney. They mostly claimed to be fugitives from the rat-race, but even so we thought it better not to mention that one of our number was an employee of the Inland Revenue.
However the pilot was not only reassuringly sober but had clearly driven this particular machine many times before, as he made light work of a series of takeoffs and landings that to our untutored eyes looked decidedly tricky. The cloud was low but we flew lower, securing a unique view of Orkney's many islands. The combination of a cramped cabin, engine noise (don't knock it, it shows they're working) and minimum altitude gave a sense of involvement that jets definitely lack. First stop was Westray, a small island with a gravel airstrip, a windsock, and a couple of part-time firemen trying to look professional whilst sheltering from the intermittent drizzle. Then came the experience we had travelled virtually the length of the British Isles for, a two-minute hop, skip and jump to Papa Westray, an even smaller island with matching gravel airstrip, windsock, etc.
At this point the Duke’s servant had to take his leave, as his locomotive was calling to him from way beyond the northern seas. He was seen off on the evening ferry, by two of his compatriots determined to win the waving competition and not be the first to give up and seek shelter from wind and rain.
For the evening of the second day on Orkney we decided the imposing Stromness Hotel was the only place worthy of our custom for eating . It was of the type that had the town had a railway line it would almost certainly have been called the Station Hotel. Afterwards the local, and possibly only, pub seemed both noisy and crowded, but just opposite a sign was seen bearing the legend 'Royal British Legion - visitors welcome'. An exploratory knock revealed the sign was correct on both counts, and we spent a convivial hour or two drinking modestly-priced beer and playing pool, at the same time trebling the number of customers.
Next day, after another excellent, and this time more leisurely, breakfast we had time to explore Stromness before the mid-morning ferry. It had a single main street, rather confusingly laid with pavement slabs, which wound gently uphill to a lookout point complete with signal cannon. For some inexplicable reason we were not afforded even an 18-gun salute, so we had to be content with a mere team photo. The town’s fishing heritage was very apparent, with virtually every other house on the seaward side having an alleyway down the side leading to a small jetty. An most unexpectedly of all, one even had a small N-gauge railway layout in the front window, complete with winterised scenery, and with evidence of further modelling activity behind. Unfortunately we had neither visiting card nor exhibition flyer to post through the letterbox, so we were unable to make contact with this bastion of far northern civilisation.
The return trip was less windy and more busy than the outward one, and took us to Thurso by lunchtime on the Thursday. A free afternoon was then declared, which two members seized on as the perfect time to visit the thriving metropolis of Wick. Unfortunately the bus ride was the most interesting part of the trip. Meanwhile the rest of us spent a restful couple of hours lunching in the harbour cafe, and sitting watching the waves breaking on the beach. Back at the station we received text reports that the other two had exhausted Wick's leisure facilities and were impatiently waiting for their train to depart for the even more thriving metropolis of Thurso. In due course we were reunited and an uneventful journey saw us back in Inverness. One item of note was the empty deep anchorage of Cromarty Firth, usually home to up to a dozen drilling rigs resting between contracts, like unemployed actors. Only one remained, and that looked to be in the throes of a major overhaul, the better to join its compatriots in the current rush for oil at $140 a barrel.
Friday morning was another train ride, this time for Kyle of Lochalsh. The group of four prudently walked to the station whilst the group of two decided on a taxi. This was initially late and latterly caught in traffic, which caused a little stress amongst both groups, particularly as the tickets were only valid with the single group seat reservation, and the ticket inspectors were out in force at the station. However a timely reunion was effected and we boarded en masse. As we progressed westwards the scenery became more mountainous and picturesque, and as on a previous trip we passed the Royal Scotsman tour train on the way. At Kyle we made the acquaintance of the Kyle of Lochalsh hotel, specifically one of the three employees who seemed to be running the hotel between them. We certainly saw no others. We were allocated outside rooms on the ground floor, which gave us both good views of Skye and easy access to the village facilities. Plenty seemed to be going on, including the building of a new and possibly over-scale health centre, and loading of a ship with oversize tree trunks.
After lunch in the hotel (served by employee number two) the third free period was declared. Three of us, mindful of the tradition created last year of a natural history element in the programme, elected to try a trip on a glass-bottomed boat. In truth the glass was more on the sides rather than the bottom, and the main wildlife visible through it was seaweed. Topsides however we saw seals, a brief glimpse of a pair of otters, and numerous varieties of birds.
DInner (served by employees two and three) was followed by a brief walk in the evening air before turning in for the last night of the trip. Breakfast (employee no. three) was timed to finish just before arrival of the bus for Fort William, which we boarded with the help of a printout of our e-ticket purchased some weeks before. The trip was as scenic as the last time, slightly less damp and with the added bonus of a view of a couple of local deer beside the road.
At Fort William there was an hour to spare before the train to Glasgow, where we boarded the train to Wigan. In the seat opposite was a lady who had stayed on the bus at Fort William and only made the train at Glasgow by a small and worrying margin, thanks to heavy traffic in the city’s suburbs. We sympathised, trying not to sound too smug about our choosing the train for that leg of the journey. For once we arrived at Wigan just in time to catch the Southport train, instead of the usual just in time to miss it, and arrived home on schedule, after a round trip of some 1500 miles.
Next time, something simpler perhaps, at least for the organisers.
Some photos are here.
The number of participants this year reverted to six, with the addition of one member who had been painted a sufficiently rosy picture of previous trips to be persuaded to make up the number to evens. Getting accommodation for six men can sometimes be tricky, the number of twin rooms in Scottish B&Bs seems strictly limited, with triples even rarer. Also the possibility of rowdy behaviour had to be considered - one guest house agreed to accommodate us on the strict condition that we would be well-behaved and would observe an 11.30 curfew. In truth most of us are of an age when riotous conduct is but a fond and distant memory.
The novelty factor was provided by a decision to include a day in Mull on a wildlife expedition. Several entrepreneurs offered their services, but only one was chosen, mainly for the quality of their website and sightings diary. The reality did not disappoint, although the weather certainly did, being the wettest sleeper trip since records began.
Another novelty was to have an escort for the first part of the journey, in the form of the wife of our new sleeper tripper. This was presented as an coincidental opportunity to visit southerly relatives, but we all knew it was a spousal monitoring exercise, to ensure that husband really did depart with a load of old train buffs, rather than go off enjoying himself somewhere else.
It was a fairly compact establishment, and we certainly were not, even without our extensive luggage. Fortunately our schedule required a timely departure, allowing other customers the chance to partake of its delights before closing time. As it happened, the train was late (the effect of the summer monsoon) causing the display board to cycle randomly through numerous train departures whilst it tried to work out which train came next. Odd that when you really want to know when a train will come the system can't actually tell you anything useful. One good omen was the train’s name - it was comforting to know we were travelling in such esteemed company.
On arrival in London we took the now traditional (i.e. we've done it once before) visit to the Doric Arch, the renamed Head of Steam pub at the entrance to Euston station. Suitably refreshed, we set out on a medical history tour of Bloomsbury and environs, led by our expedition medical officer in full regalia, namely shorts, sandals and see-through yellow rain cape. From time to time we halted on some street corner to be lectured on the original form and function of adjacent buildings, as the rain alternated between gentle and vigorous. References to plague and leprosy were reminders that at least some things have improved under the NHS. After an hour or so (it seemed longer) we were escorted to the nearby Stockpot restaurant and allowed to eat dinner. Then time off for good behaviour was granted to visit Downing Street and Trafalgar Square, before returning to Euston, reclaiming our bags from the not-best-value left luggage and boarding the sleeper.
For several hours we drank, ate, drank and watched England darken around us as we trundled northwards. Gradually the rate of consumption slowed as, one by one, we slid off to the cosy cabins further up the train. Only one remained to salute Oxenholme, and to astonish the steward by demanding more hot food well after bed-time, in the process disturbing a riveting game of Virgin Scrabble.
On return to Fort William we dispersed for assorted retail therapy, with a rendezvous arranged at Ossians Hotel for afternoon tea. Then back to the station for the Glasgow train. As required for purity of highland travel experience, we disembarked at Tyndrum Upper and embarked on foot on the downward slope to Tyndrum Lower, resisting the temptation to use assorted luggage pieces as toboggans. At ground zero the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel provided the necessary recovery fluids before we undertook the last leg to the platform. The Oban train was on time, for which we were grateful as the midges were taking full advantage of fresh meat from down south.
The B&B was equipped for all weathers, with palm trees in the garden and electric blankets on the beds. Outside a trio of surveyors spent a fascinating evening working out the levels of the road whilst we patronised the nearest chippie, allowing the vapours to waft tantilisingly in their direction.
For the first time we did not return forthwith to Oban, but took the bus to Tobermory, or Balamory as it is better known to followers of children's TV (the real thing, not Big Brother). The bus driver was clearly well-used to the intricacies of single-roads-with-passing-places, and to knowing when to give way and when to exert his moral right of progression, as the biggest vehicle on the island. We called at the ferry terminal at Fishnish, but only briefly, and certainly not long enough to rendezvous with said ferry hoving into view from Lochaline. Calmac may rule the waves, but Bowmans buses were definitely kings of the road. At Tobermory we alighted at the top of the hill and located the two B&Bs we were billeted in, probably the two highest buildings in the town, if not the island.
For the evening’s entertainment we descended a considerable height to the harbourside and thence to a pub at the far end. Mindful of our curfew we returned in good time, making use of a taxi that was surprisingly good value, even if it had been on the level.
At Craignure we met up with David Woodhouse, a Yorkshireman of enthusiastic and forthright manner, and another group of five would-be wildlife-watchers. For the next five hours we were treated to a running commentary on the island's wildlife, with frequent stops to look for examples of same. Despite the weather, or perhaps in some cases because of it, the list of species ticked off grew steadily. Sea eagles were an early capture, viewed from the shoreline through a spotter scope trained by an observer with not only excellent eyesight but a precise knowledge of where to look. Otters were spotted feeding several times, and bird species too numerous to mention. We were instructed in breeding habits, feeding habits and territorial behaviours. We also discovered the collective noun for a group of wild-life guides - a tosser. The only major item to go AWOL was the golden eagle; clearly a creature of that size had a big enough brain to realise that rain equalled wet feathers and a spoilt hair-do, and anyway most food parcels were keeping their heads down under the grass until the weather improved.
Other stops were for refreshment (soup, hot drinks and sandwiches out of the back of the minibus) and for personal comfort (in the trees, ladies to the left, gentlemen to the right, others behind the rocks). By late afternoon we were back at Craignure, with time for refreshment at the local facilities before the ferry to Oban. It stopped raining.
For the record, the wildlife seen on Mull included: common gull, cormorant. curlew, eider duck, fallow deer, sea eagle, gannet, grey-lag goose, hen harrier, heron, kestrel, otter, oyster catcher, raven, red deer, seal, shag, short-tailed vole and twite.
We split up, the better to confuse the occupying forces, some taking the full-frontal approach, via the ticket office and ice-cream van, whilst others circled around the back and took surreptitious photos of the defences.
Click here for the photos and here for some video.
It’s not often that one gets a Royal Summons. For most people it’s never, but the SMRS is not most people, nor even a most society. Six weeks and counting to the 2006 sleeper trip, and one pulls out for the most trivial of reasons. Apparently some amateur gardener, name of Charlie Windsor or some such, had asked if the royal personage could be allowed to make an exhibition of himself, and of his hostas, alongside the begonias for which our member is rightly famous.
I must confess my first response to this withdrawal was of indignation – how dare he do this! How inconsiderate! Where are his priorities? Doesn’t His Royal Hosta consult His diary before issuing an Imperial Command? How could He not know when the sleeper trip was – didn’t we have a Court Circular issued so that every duke, dignitary, nob and flunky knew when not to arrange garden parties and suchlike?
Our pleas for clemency fell on deaf ears – either your man turns up with the greens or bang goes his OBE, was the dismissive reply from Private Office. And don’t think the Tower of London is just for show either. Beneath the touristy facade lurks a deeper, darker level of dungeon just made for troublesome oiks like you. His HRH-ness was inspecting the manacles only last week, so get digging.
In the face of such regal imperatives our humble horticulturalist felt he had no option but to tug the knee, bow the forelock and submit to higher, or at least taller, authority. Despite dark mutterings about Getting Some of Me Mates to Go Down South to Mr Fancy Pants and Sort Him Out Proper, the resignation letter was signed, the deposit monies adjusted and the sound heard of size 10 (fireman’s, retired) boots stomping off to the greenhouse, spade dragging along behind.
For a moment fantasy took over. It was fate that reduced us to be the Famous Five, of Enid Blyton fame. Perhaps we were to solve some long-running crime that had baffled the Force, maybe another Beast of Bodmin, or the Great Tram Robbery of Seaton, or even the Phantom Imbiber of Beer. Then reality kicked back in, as it tends to do all too often. Who would be the odd man out on the sleeper, to take pot luck with a stranger sharing their cabin? Or would they get it to themselves, and be the envy of their friends? Would we consume more beer in five-man rounds than in six?
And so we were five.
The organisation of the trip, like the well-oiled machine it was, clicked into gear around the Ides of March, with an extended and leisurely debate over destinations. A strong contender was a route back to Mull, with an overnight stay on the island to allow participation in some of the less bloodthirsty of the local sports, such as eagle dodging, seal ducking and whale surfing . However the realisation that Cornwall had escaped a visit for a good eight years swung the balance southwards, and it took a mere mention of the trams at Seaton to seal the decision.
A chance encounter between our exhibition manager and a representative of the Bodmin and Wenford Railway led to a promise of favoured visitor status at Bodmin. [Are these meetings really chance? – discuss.] Our thoughts then turned to the coast, for it would be at least nominally summer, and our buckets and spades were well overdue a trip to the seaside. Dartmouth looked nice, and, imagine our surprise, we could get there on a preserved railway from Paignton. All the while we considered, beer was never far from our thoughts, until some mental giant made the obvious neural connection [beer = Beer = Pecorama = not really that far from Paignton = very near to Seaton = trams]. And so we were decided.
Booking of trains and accommodation proceeded along familiar, well-worn lines. Virgin offered their usual incomprehensible pricing and illogical timetables, with Mozart symphonies heard in their entirety whilst waiting for Customer Service to serve our particular customer, whose call was valuable almost to the point of providing someone to answer it. A host of landladies expressed their eagerness to accomodate six, sorry only five now, adult males in their home-from-homes ('Are you with the sewage convention? – we’re fully booked that week'). The only hitch was Paignton, where so many ladies thrust their wares in the direction of the Society’s hapless booking clerk that he quite forgot which one he had eventually settled on, metaphorically, so to speak. A study of the list was not promising. At least fifty to choose from, with no clue from the memory as to which one it might be. Back to the phone, grateful for the foresight in subscribing to Telewest’s Talk Unlimited payment plan. In the event, the correct one was struck only fifth time lucky, and it wasn’t even on the list. I am available for lottery number predictions.
As to personnel, it looked for a while as if we would, for the first time, field the same team two years running. However the Middle-Aged Pretender put paid to that novel circumstance. Yet another reason to vote Republican.
The first anomaly in the timetable involved going north from Wigan in order to progress southwards. One might be forgiven for dismissing this as yet another example of the idiosyncracy of Virgin Trains. The truth however was more prosaic, our chosen train ran non-stop from Preston to Euston, in a shade over two hours, so the diversion seemed well worth the effort. On top of this the female train manager told jokes, and responded to our complaint over buffet prices by explaining that women had both the foresight and the organisation to bring their own lunch. Gender was also apparently a factor in the need for at least one (male) passenger to try to get off at Wigan rather than enjoy an uncovenanted awayday to the capital.
Safely and promptly delivered to the metropolis, we sought further safe haven in the Head of Steam, a hostelry conveniently located at the entrance to Euston station. It also overlooked the bus stop, close study of which revealed several fascinating facts. Firstly the very latest double-deckers have outside handrails on the top front nearside corner, no doubt to facilitate cleaners swinging from bus to bus without the need for inconvenient ladders or awkward abseil ropes. Secondly all buses, of whatever vintage, carry in addition to the route number a small plate recording their tally of cyclists shot down in traffic combat. And thirdly, whilst all buses contribute to traffic congestion, it takes a bendybus to really tie it up in knots.
After a short intermission to synchronise watches and load up everyone's number into the ubiquitous mobile phones, the party departed to Paddington to reconnoitre the departure arrangements for the sleeper, including the location of the all-important First Class Lounge. With surplus goods deposited in the left luggage we then split up, for such diverse diversions as the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, an open-air swimming pool, and the nearest pub to watch the world cup match of the day.
After regrouping for dinner at a nearby steak house we attempted a survey of Hyde Park, but the relevant authorities had clearly received a tip-off of our intentions and set all the gates and turnstiles to exit-only, to better protect the reputation of London's premier play park. So it was back to another pub (the Mitre) and another world cup match (Switzerland against Ukraine).
The First Class Lounge was just that, a first-class place to lounge and be looked after by an attentive steward before boarding the sleeper. Some experimental video was undertaken, with all the hallmarks of professional filming- multiple retakes, a director with a robust command of the English language, and actors who forgot their lines, quarralled over who should get the best parts and threatened legal action to secure their just rewards. It remains to be seen whether such hard-earned footage acquires the cult status it so clearly deserves.
The night passed (reasonably) uneventfully, the only events of note being an untimely sounding of the fire alarm in the early hours, and a complete failure on the part of all members to stand to at 0530 hours to salute the crossing of the Prince Albert bridge at Saltash. At least, being a south-bound sleeper there was no shunting at Edinburgh to tempt members out on to the platform, there to wander around in unsuitable night attire, higher brain functions barely ticking over.
The choice between proceeding to Boscarne Junction before or after lunch was really no contest - the culinary aspects of any sleeper trip are of equal importance to the railway matters. After a short visit to the workshops we departed northwards again, this time bound for Paignton via Plymouth and Newton Abbot. Our destination did not endear itself to our critical faculties, 'the Rhyl of the South' was one comment. A touch hard perhaps, but the Southport of the South it certainly was not. The lack of taxis at the station did not help; after a considerable wait we ended up using the same taxi twice to get all the party to the B&B. Next morning, after another pub meal and another world cup game, we entered the station to seek out the preserved line to Kingswear. The Manor locomotive and observation car were immaculate, the coaches less so, and the number of passengers surprisingly large. Not one but two pensioner coach parties. We deployed our younger members to outrun the zimmer frames and pensioner buggies and stake a claim to an entire SMRS compartment.
The trip was a scenic one past beaches and seascapes. On arrival at Kingswear we held back to allow the first wave of tourists to engulf the Dartmouth ferry. This was a short and slick operation, by seamen who gave the impression they were just itching to open up the engines well beyond their normal slow-ahead-both and see just how big a bow wave they could create on either bank of the Dart. The rendezvous point was the station building, which we later learned was built without the inconvenience of a railway to attract passengers bent on messing up its clean seats and tidy waiting rooms. Some minor problem over bridge-building rights apparently. The ticket we had purchased entitled us to a boat trip on the Dart, so we embarked on an hour-long cruise, complete with running commentary delivered with well-practised style and neatly-phrased wit. Houses occupied by the Dimbleby family and the late Agatha Christie were but two of the highlights, along with a castle and assorted harbour defences.
These were present in alarming numbers at our destination, prompting speculation as to who was the mole in our midst who had leaked our travel schedule to officialdom? No-one confessed, and after a short walk alongside the estuary we edged carefully up to whether the police appeared to be congregating the thickest. The mystery deepened when a sign was spotted indicating a temporary road closure since 07.00 that morning. Was it royalty, perhaps, visiting yet another begonia collection? A coach pulled up, disgorging smartly-uniformed men and women carrying musical instruments, in some cases as big as they were. All became clear, it was royalty, to be precise a Royal Marine Band, come to serenade townsfolk and tourists alike with a Beating Retreat ceremony, complete with bugles, British Legion flag-bearers and a brace of bechained mayors. Their escort and warm-up act was a bunch of testosterone-fuelled PT instructors bent on demonstrating that if defence cutbacks meant no money to buy weapons, that was just fine by them. Memories of an innocent youth spent within sound of the RM School of Music at Deal, and of a grandfather playing trombone in the Chatham band, came flooding back to your humble scribe. The performance confirmed a long-cherished view that this was The Best Band in the Land, No Argument, OK?
The next morning, refreshed after a carnivorous dinner at the George and a excellent breakfast from our landlady, we embarked on a day-long exploration of the trams. These were relocated from Eastbourne in the 1960s, and were roughly two-thirds full scale. This meant that they looked big enough for amply-sized adults but actually weren’t, particularly for such crucial manouvres as ascending the spiral stairs to the top deck. However the views achieved were well worth the effort, as was the cooling breeze. Whilst the machines lacked the sophistication of their bigger Blackpool brethren, the charm factor was significantly higher, with the added satisfaction of knowing that a branchline trackbed was being put to better use than as a mere cycle track. A stop-off at the half-way point at Colyton allowed access to a nearby free house and to inspection of an original Gentleman’s Open-Topped Platform Convenience. The French term is pissoire, from which we get the English word lavatory.
We finished off with an exploration of a long-gone and apparently long-forgotten landmark, Seaton station, which had suffered the same fate as so many branch lines in the 1960s. No traces could be found, the area now being used for some rather nondescript industrial buildings.
By late afternoon the sun was still at high noon, so two of our party decided liquid refreshment was the only answer, and went for a swim from Seaton’s shingle beach. The rest of us encouraged them with pieces of said shingle tossed languidly in their general direction, without being too specific as to the exact aiming point. The last evening of the holiday was celebrated with a meal at the local Indian restaurant, preceeded for two lucky members by use of their en-suite bath for their second total immersion of the day.
Some photos are here and video is here.
2005 - AVIEMORE AND KYLE OF LOCHALSH
The government, we are reliably informed, is considering congestion charges for the train network. After years of being harangued about the virtues of public transport (not that the SMRS ever needed convincing) it seems that it is now too popular for its own good. We will be required to pay extra for letting the train take the strain.
Maybe now is the time to do the same for the sleeper trip. With bookings up 100% from last year it is clearly underpriced, and in danger of being enjoyed by the unwashed masses, instead of by the discerning Alpha elite who are the target grouping. Perhaps we are making the itinerary too attractive - this year not only a guided tour of Speyside Railway's workshops but also a visit to the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. Add in a short but significant ride in the day coach of the Fort William sleeper and the package was complete.
As a bonus, and probably uniquely in the history of rail tours, the trip started with a guided tour of a potting shed. Not any old shed it must be said, for it contained all the basics needed to support intelligent life, namely a beer store, a TV and a model railway layout. After the necessary critical review of the owner's modelling skills, we moved on to the adjacent begonia greenhouses. Again not just any begonias, but a sizeable portion of the National Collection, over 700 varieties in all. As Winston Churchill very nearly said: 'Never in the field of human horticulture has so much been grown for so many by so few'.
After the chaotic scenes marking last year's departure, the initial moves of the 2005 expedition went remarkably smoothly. Despite using four different vehicles on the approach run we achieved a successful rendezvous at Preston station. The sleeper was on time, the berths were ready and waiting and the lounge car was freshly stocked with beer. Inverness was reached in style and comfort, with sufficient time for a second breakfast at a convenient cafe.
Practice makes perfect so they say, and after last year's escapade with the camera card Joe went one better this time and remaindered the complete camera. Left in a drawer at the Inverness B&B, allegedly for safe keeping. Unfortunately he failed to report this manoeuvre to the expedition quartermaster. The item therefore was not recorded on the exit procedure checklist and remained secure in the dressing table, whilst we entrained for the west coast. Fortunately the landlady took pity on our senior citizen and responded positively to the phone call requesting the camera to be forwarded back to Formby.
The highlight of the westward journey, apart from the increasingly scenic and sunny scenery, was the sudden appearance of the Royal Scotsman tour train, which passed us eastbound at Strathcarron. For some reason we had not been advised of this venture, so quick work was needed with the remaining cameras to ensure the event was suitably recorded.
On arrival at Kyle the party split, with the majority heading to the Lochalsh Hotel for lunch, whilst the expedition's medical officer decided fasting would add to the pleasure of a dip in the jellyfish- infested waters of the loch. Next in a crowded itinerary was a bus across to Kyleakin on Skye. The fare was a shock - 15p for a single, strictly cash, no credit cards, cheques or concessions. We reluctantly paid up and crossed over the now toll-free bridge to Kyleakin. After a quick survey of the village, and mindful of the clouds building up over the Cuillins, we embarked on a route march back over the bridge to the mainland, thereby saving the return bus fare for more important matters, such as tea and scones at the harbour cafe.
The final stage of the day was the bus ride to Spean Bridge. Much to our disappointment the driver accepted the printout of the internet booking with the merest dismissive glance. Any hopes of a prolonged and satisfying argument over the validity of our e-tickets were cruelly dashed. The ride itself was of the vigorous variety, through some of Scotland's finest (and towards the end dampest) glens, arriving shaken, unstirred and on time at the B&B. The evening was spent at the Commando Bar, drinking Skye ale served somewhat incongruously by a young Polish waiter. Attempts to generate interest in a gentle post-dinner yomp up to the Commando memorial met with a disappointing if predictable result. Also predictably, the day ended with testing a particular brand of malt whisky to destruction in the B&B's comfortable conservatory.
Now the competitive spirit is strong in the SMRS, and the loss of a mere camera was bound to produce a strong response. Knight to king's pawn two, and Jim claimed the disappearance of a bum bag, complete with many and various financial resources. Several helpful theories as to the circumstances of its loss were promptly proffered: it was left at the hotel at Mallaig, in the toilet on the train, on the street in Fort William, etc. A return to the train drew a blank, as did a phone call to the Marine Hotel. However as the unfortunate victim prepared to throw himself on the mercy of the police, our landlady phoned to say the article was indeed in the safe custody of the Fort William constabulary. Just how she knew of this information, and of the phone number to pass it on to, is one of those mysteries which, like Masonic secrets, are only divulged to those deeply immersed in the lore of the Bed and Breakfast hostess.
Jim then had the task of refilling the reclaimed bag, a distinctly non-trivial operation. The police, with their customary efficiency, had carefully segregated each item by type and deposited them into sealed envelopes, the better to make an exhaustive list of the bag’s contents. English notes, Scottish notes, dollars, euros, travellers cheques, keys, phones and enough plastic cards to play a decent hand of gin rummy, all had to be restored to their rightful compartment. Three cards had already been cancelled, and were ritually torn apart on the tea table, in front of witnesses. Then back to Spean Bridge for a second night, courtesy of the day coach of the southbound sleeper, somewhat cramped due to the lack of a lounge car and presumably, the beverage stocks which went with it. Same conservatory, different malt.
It was perhaps tempting fate to split up again at this stage, particularly with a southbound train to catch. However by now we were past caring, so three members were authorised to depart for Fort William on shopping leave, whilst the remainder set off for a brisk uphill stroll to the Commando memorial. There we paid our respects to both soldiers and scenery, before repairing to a convenient hotel for refreshments. Sitting outside enjoying the view had one drawback, in the energetic form of a young cocker spaniel that had clearly just been through its initial commando training and was anxious to practice its new-found skills on any unsuspecting visitor.
Glasgow Central was reached in good time, but this was more than could be said of the 1705 arrival from Euston. Its tardiness meant we were 20 minutes late leaving, and its lack of maintenance meant the public address, the air conditioning and the toilets were all of doubtful functionality. However we were promoted to first class for our trouble, so the overall rating of the sleeper trip was still scored as 'Excellent'. At Preston the doctor’s wife was ready and almost waiting to take us back to Southport, and no doubt to require her spouse to provide a full written inventory of items taken v. items returned. The retired fireman likewise retired to count his begonias and marvel at just how much spare-room-decorating a determined wife can do when her husband is well out of the way.
Some photos are here and video is here.